Parsing Francis, Shepherd of a Lost Sheep UPDATED

Another week, another Pope Francis interview to set the internet atwitter. I liked it better when a quiet little German scholar issued clear and carefully structured catechetical lessons instead of free-ranging, off-the-cuff interviews with a hostile press.

But then, the church isn’t here to make me comfortable.

In fact, she’s here for the opposite purpose. 

So when Francis pushes me out of my comfort zone (roughly once a week) I don’t assume the problem is Francis.

It may well be. We’re not Ultramontanists. The pope is only guarded from error on issues of faith and morals when speaking from the chair, and last I checked, the pages of left-wing publications are not the Chair of Peter. There is nothing to prevent a Francis papacy from being a disaster that requires another John Paul and Benedict to right it. Paul VI was a good, holy, and wise man, but he left us a ruin.

I don’t believe that’s the case with Francis, however. I think he has a particular style and we need to get used to the rapid change in tone. It shouldn’t come as much surprise that a Argentinian Jesuit is not a Polish Thomist Philosopher or a German Augustinian Theologian.

He’s not a scholar, he’s a pastor. I’m more comfortable with scholars, less so with the pastoral thing. I’m happy with my books and my Germans. Pastoral work has to do with getting down on the street with people in all their messy fallibility and failings, but also with the potential for beauty and faith and love.

I think that’s wonderful, but there are inherent dangers in it as well. Sometimes you need to be out there on the knife-edge taking risks in order to lure new souls to the kingdom.

We have to realize that these interviews are being perceived in different ways by people in different places of life and society. Those of us who are deeply involved in the life of the church tend to perceive the problems first: the lack of precision in theological language, the scent of relativism and reductionist thinking, the go-along-to-get-alongism, and the potential for zeitgeist-chasing.

I had a negative reaction to two things in particular in the most recent interview.

First, there was his statement about conscience: “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

True, but there is a phrase missing there: a well-formed conscience. People can follow a defective conscience right into Hell. Only a conscience properly formed and fixed on the Truth can lead us. Add to that the suggestion of moral relativism, and you have a problematic passage.

Second, there is the passage in which he dismisses proselytism:

Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.

This becomes more clear later in the interview:

It is love of others, as our Lord preached. It is not proselytizing, it is love. Love for one’s neighbor, that leavening that serves the common good.

We are not just expected to proselytize: we’re commanded to do it (Mark 16:15).

Obviously, Francis knows this, and he preaches Christ powerfully, so his criticism is leveled at a certain kind of aggressive proselytism. Since I rarely see aggressive proselytism in the Church, I have no idea why he feels the need to single it out for dismissal as solemn nonsense, except to draw the focus back to preaching in love and act over word.

It recalls the words of Jerome about St. John the Evangelist:

The Blessed Evangelist John lived at Ephesus down to an extreme old age, and, at length, when he was with difficulty carried to the Church, and was not able to exhort the congregation at length, he was used simply to say at each meeting, My little children, love one another. At last the disciples and brethren were weary with hearing these words continually, and asked him, Master, wherefore ever sayest thou this only? Whereto he replied to them, worthy of John, It is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.

The world is not our little Catholic bubble. I like my bubble. I stay in it most of the time. The classroom and the computer and the page allow to me to leave it from time to time, but the preaching and teaching required in the bubble is of a different quality to that required in the world.

Francis makes me nervous, because his words can be spun by those enemies we have within the Church and without. On the other hand, we shouldn’t get twitchy and skittish about a genuine attempt to engage non-believers and non-Catholics with unguarded language. No teachings are changed. The faith is as it always has been. The messiness of debate and dialog doesn’t alter the truth.

Those of us in the Church–we who have made the commitment to teaching and preaching the word and following Her in all things–are the 99 sheep, safe at home with our Mother. That’s not to say our salvation is assured, but merely that the shepherd doesn’t have to worry about us quite as much, for the moment.

Are we then to begrudge the shepherd when he leaves the safety and comfort of the stable to retrieve our lost brother?

UPDATE: Translation problems?

You should really check out this post by Sr. Anne. An excerpt:

If “everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them,” is the Pope saying that there is no such thing as objective truth, or objective right or wrong? This is where it is really, really helpful to know Italian: “Ciascuno di noi ha una sua visione del Bene e anche del Male. Noi dobbiamo incitarlo a procedere verso quello che lui pensa sia il Bene” is more literally (and helpfully?) translated as “Each one of us has his/her own vision of the Good or even of Evil. We must encourage him/her to move toward that which he/she sees as the Good.” The Pope is not leveling the difference between truth and untruth, right and wrong: he is saying that we all have a duty to encourage people to pursue the Good, knowing that the true Good will not fail to manifest himself, even if “through a glass darkly.”

Here’s another whopper: “The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood.” Um, the Son of God did not become incarnate in souls. He became incarnate in human nature, in his own human flesh and blood. The Italian is ” Il Figlio di Dio si è incarnato per infondere nell’anima degli uomini il sentimento della fratellanza”: “The Son of God became incarnate to infuse into the soul of men [could say "the human soul"] the feeling of brotherhood.”

 Read more.

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Grace West Meets Pope Francis, And Has a Curious Encounter at the Tomb of Padre Pio
Embracing Mystery
About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • OldWorldSwine

    This is very close to the state in which I find myself. I don’t at all dismiss the anguish of my more zealous traditionalist Catholic friends (I get sweaty palms, too, when I see Pope Francis in the news, as it seems so often to put us on the defensive), but I see many traditionalists leaping to the same unfounded conclusions as the secular press and falling far too quickly into despair that denies faith in the providence of the Spirit of Christ for His Church.

    We will have to continue to fight heterodoxy in the same measured, patient way as we have been (with notable success) for the past several decades, and not allow ourselves to be thrown off by a few newspaper headlines.

    We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the problems we see with the Church in the secular West are the only problems that matter. The universal Church juggles many cultural, political and historic movements simultaneously, and where we may feel as though there could be *nothing* more important than liturgical reform or continuing to deal with the fallout of the Sexual Revolution, there may be great swaths of the world where these things are not the most immediately pressing issues.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Well stated. I do fear that a softening of language may undo the hard won victories of Benedict and John Paul, and zap us right back to the kumbaya 70s. Perhaps another generation of shoring up the edifice would have helped. Of course, who is going to tell that lost generation, “Just wait a while we get this thing locked down.” Now it’s time for those of us who are faithful to the Magisterium to step up and prove we can be as effective at evangelism as at reform.

  • Mary E.

    In fact, some of the 99 sheep back in the pasture do begrudge the shepherd when he leaves the flock to retrieve the sheep that got lost: “I told that sheep not to wander off. Serves him right: it’s his own fault that he got lost. And I can’t believe our shepherd is making a reckless, dangerous trip to go save him. What poor judgement, risking all of us to try and rescue one stupid, thoughtless sheep . Our shepherd should just forget about him, and leave him to his fate, and take care of us instead.”

  • Dominic de Souza

    “People can follow a defective conscience right into Hell.”

    Permit me to disagree; the whole point of a conscience is the innate sense of good and evil. And even if a conscience is mal-formed, one still has the perceived good and evil. No one goes to Hell for following a perceived good. We definitely do for the perceived evil, or for authentically ignoring our perceived good. Granted, the better formed, the better the choices.

    But a malformed conscience is not going to lead you to Hell; it just means you have a whole lot less to work with, and you’re still at a crossroads with God in the wings watching.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    That’s an excellent analysis.

    I think you can argue that a conscience can indeed become so warped as to lead one into evil. Does one then surrender responsibility for committing grave evil after choosing that path that leads to a warped conscience? Say, for instance, that one chose to subject oneself to indoctrination by the Nazis during World War II. Would not the subsequent evil acts be the fruit of a warped conscience?

    Moral theology was my worst class, so I’m not staking out any definitive points there. I do believe that the way our theology thinks of conscience and what the public perceives conscience to be are two different things.

  • LeeAnn Balbirona

    I think we must keep in mind who Pope Francis is giving the interview to: a thoughtful and well-educated atheist. Francis’ words are not meant to be a teaching for the faithful but a message to the secular world that the Church is not here to convert others by force of dogma or insist that all must become Roman Catholic. Like your phrase used above, “lure new souls to the kingdom”: I find that icky sounding. Luring means trickery. I don’t believe Francis’ goal in the conversation was to sneakily convert the writer, I believe it was just what he said, to have a conversation, to get to know the person, to love him.

  • Dominic de Souza

    This whole discussion predicates the authentic conscience, not what we persuade ourselves, but what we truly believe at a given time. It may not be our fault that our conscience is malformed; God works within those parameters. We are culpable for every time we deliberately avoid the perceived good.

    A conscience also does not exist in a vacuum, but is influenced by God through other people, events, etc. If said person accepted the indoctrination (depending on the situation, culpability might be arguable, i.e. torture), and authentically ordered themselves according to a different conscience, the same rules apply. God will ultimately look at each Nazi and hold them up to the same standards.

    “a conscience can indeed become so warped as to lead one into evil”

    I think a distinction can be made, so that the more evil choices you make, the easier it gets, until your moral strength to withstand it becomes (almost) atrophied – where there’s life there’s hope.

    I hope some of this makes sense. :)

  • Mary E.

    Here’s my favorite part of the interview:

    Scalfari: “I do not believe in the soul.”
    Pope Francis: “You do not believe in it but you have one.”

  • Gordis85

    Right on…so many who “are in the Church” are having a field day admonishing the shepherd for going after the one lost sheep. Rather than stay put and wait so that all “100 are reunited,” they are hissing and tossing their manure everywhere. I will pray to go out and help bring back the lost sheep in the footsteps of the divine Shepherd as I have a few in my own family. I too get lost and after a long while, wander back home only because the Holy Spirit sought me out.

  • Gordis85


  • Mary E.

    I also wandered away. Fortunately, I didn’t get too too far, but I am ever thankful that the Holy Spirit kept track of me ;-). And my guardian angel deserves some credit too.

  • Gordis85

    “I liked it better when a quiet little German scholar issued clear and carefully structured catechetical lessons instead of free-ranging, off-the-cuff interviews with a hostile press.”

    That approach may have worked for you and for many others but in all honesty, it did not work for me nor for many others who say they are now listening again to what the Church has to say since they relate to Pope Francis’s approach.

    I am going to suggest that perhaps when in prayer, Papa Benedict may have begun to realize that “his approach” no longer served to reach the greater Church. He may have begun to realize many had stopped listening to his message and began to drift away. Sure, many remained but many became indifferent. He realized this and wanted to do what was best for the ENTIRE CHURCH and not just a few. Just speculating, but I wonder if that was in his mind and upon his heart, when he began to contemplate resigning.
    We still benefit from his holy presence and I for one am very grateful to God for such a blessing.

    They talk to each other often, I am sure of it. The Holy Father benefits from Benedict’s advice and prayers and I am sure there are many conversations that have been held and are held we will never know about. If we did know, many might be shocked and many dismayed at just how wrong they are about every little assumption and speculation.

    I am going to continue to leave all of what’s happening in God’s holy hands…my job is to stay alert, keep praying and keep hoping.

    Viva il Papa!

  • Paul Adams

    I wish we could have a moratorium on papal interviews. Every time Francis speaks, the energy of countless bishops and bloggers is taken up with spinning his words – he didn’t really mean that, the media distorted his words, it was a mistranslation. This seems like a monumental distraction, not an aid to evangelization.

  • Paul Adams

    Karl Jaspers talks of finding a former Nazi concentration camp guard in hospital after WWII. He was wracked with guilt because he allowed a Jewish boy to escape instead of doing what his conscience dictated, send him to the gas chambers.

  • Paul Adams

    The problem I see is that Francis is proposing exactly what the mainstream American Church has been doing for 45 years – avoiding mention of sin or sex, abortion or homosexuality, etc., offering a saccharine version of God is love at every homily, talking of love and forgiveness to those who see nothing to repent or forgive, and making no serious demands. Same in Latin America, where the Church was silent on burning moral issues like abortion and SSM and let the protestants carry the struggle. So, as they say there, the Church chose the poor and the poor chose the protestants.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I’m inclined to agree, but then I wonder if it’s really such a bad thing to have these discussions. If we can put aside the hysterics on both sides, perhaps this is just a teaching opportunity. I’d prefer not to see glee from the progressives who made the church a wasteland for 40 years, but I believe in the end they will be disappointed to learn the pope is still catholic, and perhaps then the last hope they have for an eternal Spirit of Vatican II Church will be extinguished. Call me an optimist.

  • Inge Loots

    Fr. Z does a great job on his blog showing that what Pope Francis is saying here is in line with Classical Catholic teachings:

  • Kristen inDallas

    The really awesome thing about Benedict’s retirement is that for the first time in anyone’s lifetime… we have two shepards. We may not have 2 popes in the technical sense, but we have two men who are capable of reaching two very different audiences and bringing a multitde to Christ with them. For those that prefer Benedict’s style… keep watching him. He’s still here among us, leading by example and someone who faithful Catholics would be smart to emulate. Let Francis keep reaching out to the fallen, he’s quite good at it… we have no shortage of strong and silent role models these days, so no need to force him into that role.

  • Roki

    Each person is responsible for the formation of his own conscience. Part of the good that the conscience seeks is to know the truth about what is good.

    A conscience also does not exist in a vacuum, but is influenced by God through other people, events, etc.

    We are responsible for what we have control over; we are not responsible for what is beyond our control. So, each person is responsible to examine the people and events that surround him, to actively choose what to accept and what to reject, whom to trust and whom to remain skeptical toward.

    One is also responsible to examine one’s own innate desires, to insure that they really are for true goods.

    Further, while culpability decreases as freedom decreases, if one uses his freedom to give up or reduce his own freedom, his culpability for the habit or vice remains.

    Now, I’m the first to insist that the object of the will is always The Good, and that it is impossible to will anything except insofar as it is perceived as good.

    But that should not be interpreted to mean that our culpability or responsibility is reduced to something negligible. Even in this culture which constantly brainwashes us with advertising, even weakened by original sin as we are, God has preserved in us that image of his own infinite freedom which both allows us to enter into relationship with him and enables us to reject that relationship in favor of some created good that we place above him.

    So yes, it is exactly possible to “follow a defective conscience right into Hell,” if we neglect our first responsibility to form that conscience to the best of our ability.

  • Gordis85

    I agree…like I said already, I am very grateful to God for Papa Emerito’s holy if unseen presence in the Church. His prayers will benefit us all. ^^

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Except, he’s not. Pick a different audience than Jesuits or Atheists, and you’ve got the Pope giving speeches that say that same sex marriage is from the devil and that gynocologists need to promote the culture of life.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    One can easily go to hell for a perceived good. Just ask any woman in a Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat.

  • Paul Adams

    Yes, but the problem is that when the pope gives a journalistic interview, his audience is the whole world.

  • Kelly Reineke

    Like you I found his discussion of ministers being too rigorist or too lax applicable even in my own domestic church. I was also moved by his strong words against loneliness. I was not surprised when people came out poo pooing that statement. With the shocking proliferation of pxxx surely loneliness is a plague. How nice we are to sit with our faith and families and jobs, convinced that loneliness and unemployment are third class evils.

  • Dave Zelenka

    ”Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow
    the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to
    make the world a better place.”

    When we left the garden, we did so because we gained consciousness (we knew right from wrong). We don’t really need a well-formed consciousness, because God engraves that true consciousness on our hearts. Sin reinterprets what is written on our hearts for its own purposes: “No, it’s really okay to do this or that, even though the depths of my heart says no.” Truth is self-justifying. I have no need to argue that the pine tree needles are indeed green. It’s self-evident. Conscious always conceives of good and bad in the self-evident way. It’s what we do with it afterward that causes all the trouble.

  • Chesire11

    The tone of most of the criticism of our Holy Father sounds like the elder brother whining that his father is paying too much attention to the prodigal, and not enough to him.

    There is a difference between conversation, and proclamation. Conversation is more informal, and therefore more engaging, but it is also less rigorous. We need to recognize that fact, and understand that is okay, it is a feature, not a bug.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    And his purpose is to show us a conversion in process.

  • Paul Adams

    and to announce the new path…that of Bernardin and Martini. See Sandro Magister on the significance of these media events at

  • TheodoreSeeber

    And I’ll reply with Pope Francis’s own words, which deny the pro-choice movement entirely:

  • steve5656546346

    He pointlessly, and unfairly, insults faithful Catholics: that is not necessary. Nor is it necessary to claim that the biggest problems in the world to day are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the aged: that is false.

    The purpose of communications is…well…to communicate: if most everybody is misunderstanding you–assuming that is what is happening–then it is time to try an different approach. Maybe off the cuff to a hostile press is not really the best answer after all?

  • Paul Adams

    My point is not about the interpretation of a particular passage in a journalistic interview, it’s about the whole direction of the Church, as Magister explains.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I am not seeing any change at all. The teaching of the church on these topics is clear, and Pope Francis has upheld that teaching repeatedly